Is the capture of Ramadi the beginning of the end for Islamic State?

Will we see the end of Daesh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State) in 2016?

Optimists can be reasonably confident of the beginning of the end of Daesh after its retreat from Ramadi, a crucial Iraqi city around 100 km from Baghdad, on Sunday.

Daesh militants were forced out of Ramadi's city centre and government buildings by Iraqi forces after a month-long battle. Though some militants may still be occupying pockets of Ramadi, capital of Anbar, the biggest Iraqi province, their further retreat towards Syria is imminent as Iraq's army presses forward, is clearing out mines and booby traps that had made the advance difficult.

The capture of Ramadi is significant for various reasons. It is the third successive victory for Iraqi forces and their allies against Daesh since October, when they recaptured Beiji, an oil refining town. A few weeks later, their Kurdish allies drove Daesh out of Sinjar, cutting off a key supply route. Clearly, the momentum against Daesh is building up.

 Is the capture of Ramadi the beginning of the end for Islamic State?

Representational image. Image courtesy: Reuters

Buoyed by the victory, Iraqi forces are now planning an onslaught on Mosul, the second-biggest Iraqi city that was captured by Daesh in June 2014. The Sunni-dominated city, with an estimated population of 25 lakh, is considered the second most important stronghold of Daesh after Al-Raqqah, capital of the self-declared Islamic Caliphate.

In November 2014, when Daesh beheaded American soldier Peter Kassig in Syria, it claimed to be burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, a Syrian city that has mythological relevance for the self-proclaimed Caliphate.

Daesh believes that its fighters will vanquish the "army of Rome" in an apocalyptic battle at Dabiq. The fighters argue the end of days battle at Dabiq has been predicted in the Hadith, sayings attributed to Prophet Mohammed. According to the prophecy, what follows this victory in Dabiq and Turkey is the appearance and final defeat of the Islamic version of the Antichrist, called the Dajjal, at the hands of (the Islamic) Jesus.

Modern warfare gives very little importance to boots on the ground, dominated since it is with airstrikes and drone attacks. By every stretch of imagination, a fight-to-finish between two armies mounted on horses sounds like a 1500-year-old fantasy. But Daesh has continuously used the prophecy of a final battle in Dabiq to recruit more jihadists.

One of the assumptions made by Daesh in predicting the final battle at Dabiq is that it will keep expanding its boundaries, advancing in the Middle East, vanquishing other countries. Their victories, Daesh assumes, will force "Rome" to send its soldiers for a decisive ground battle.

Events in Syria and Iraq, however, are not following the Daesh fantasy. Instead of expanding, it is being continuously squeezed into a smaller territory, its supply lines are getting choked, access to crude reserves in the region is being cut off. And, to compound its woes, the Iraqi army and its allies are making strategic advances, threatening to drive them out of the country. So, instead of a decisive battle with Rome and Constantinople (Turkey), Daesh is being forced to fight a resurgent Iraq bent on destroying it.

All these factors could counter the Daesh propaganda, highlighting its precarious position and making believers question the longevity and survival of the Caliphate.

Mosul could be next. Experts believe the Iraqi army is shaping up well for a decisive push for the northern city. “In principle, it’s fairly hard for IS to feel good about its position. It’s not as if it can hold these cities against the Iraqi army with American air power and other coalition air power,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Wall Street Journal.

“I think it will happen,” he said. “In practice, it could take the better part of 2016 or the whole part to be able to have the capacity for the Iraqi army to do it.”

Though the coordination between Iraqi forces and their allies is much better compared to the days Daesh swept through a third of the country and parked itself at the gates of Baghdad, the battle for Mosul would not be easy.

Daesh has shown remarkable resilience and ability to regroup. In November, when it was driven out of Sinjar and its supply lines were cut off, Daesh fighters opened another alternate route within days of the setback.

It has also managed to keep money flowing by trading in oil from captured territories, thus retaining its ability to fund the fight and its recruitment drive.

But the momentum now is shifting decisively against Daesh, a fear betrayed by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leader of the self-proclaimed Caliphate, in his latest audio message to followers.

In his 24-minute audio released on Sunday, al Baghdadi warned of difficult times ahead, saying "the whole world" is united against them.

He may have more reasons to worry amidst reports that Daesh is now being battered in Syria by forces backed by the US.

According to CNN, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have inched closer to Raqqa, ISIS' administrative headquarters, and taken the Tishreen Dam on the Euphrates River, just 13 miles north of the city. This latest advance by the Kurdish-led SDF threatens to further erode ISIS' access to the Turkish border through the town of Manbij.

The fight could be long and slow. But this could just be the beginning of the end of Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

Updated Date: Dec 28, 2015 16:39:50 IST